Everyone who knew Joe Mandeville would have bet that Marilyn Franklin would never have fallen for him. After all, it was his brother Pete that most people remembered; Pete the high school and college athlete, the handsome one, the one people saw in the commercials for his bookstores. Joe was more intelligent, perhaps, and probably ran a little deeper, but most people would have called him boring.
So it was with considerable surprise that they received the introduction of his new wife at Pete’s party to celebrate the opening of the 100th Mandeville Books. Pete kicked the party into higher gear at the news, to the surprise of the people who thought he might resent losing his share of Joe’s estate someday. There was nothing mean about Pete, Joe always said, and Pete’s reaction proved his brother’s faith.
The next big shock was even greater. Joe had gone to an antiques auction one afternoon and returned home to find Marilyn dead — raped and strangled. For quite a while, life shut down for him. Pete took care of his brother, seeing to his day-to-day needs, until his wife began to complain.
“He’s an adult, for dog’s sake, Pete.”
“He’s my brother, Julie. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but it does to me. Besides, he didn’t just lose Marilyn …”
What no one had known except Joe and Marilyn was that she was expecting their child. Joe had gone to the auction that day to bid on an antique cradle to surprise his wife. It had come from the auction house, and sat in the corner of Marilyn’s office, unopened, unwanted.
Pete eventually left Joe alone at his own request, but returned the day the police arrested Earvin Maxie. Maxie had been seen in their apartment building the day of the murder, carrying a bouquet of flowers. The police were convinced that he’d been hired to murder Marilyn, but not even the most cynical detective seriously thought Joe was guilty and no one could imagine who quiet Marilyn could have angered so much that they wanted her dead. Besides, Maxie denied consistently that he had been hired — and he’d used the flower trick before in the rape he’d been convicted on years back. The police weren’t entirely convinced, but offers of immunity or commuted sentences had been laughed off.
“Fellas, this is Texas. Do you seriously expect me to believe that the state that executed the most murderers last year is gonna let me walk for what I did?”
So the jury convicted him and he refused all appeals. One week before his scheduled execution, he demanded and received an audience with the warden, and made an unusual last request.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Yes, I’m sure. And it has to be private. Really PRIVATE. No guards, no mikes, no snooping.”
So Joe Mandeville stood at the entrance to Huntsville, waiting for the guards to let him in. In his pocket was a pack of unfiltered Camels.
He sat down across a picnic table isolated in the exercise yard and glared at the man who killed his wife. Maxie surprised him by not showing any of the cheeky attitude that had convicted him as surely as the evidence.
“Mandeville, there’s something — no, several somethings — I need you to know.”
Joe folded his arms and didn’t speak.
“First off, I’m sorry about the baby. She begged me and I even called the one who hired me — ” Joe’s eyebrows nearly launched themselves off his face ” — and told ‘em, but then they just got madder and said to kill her. It was only supposed to be a rape, at first, maybe smack her around. She was so hated.”
Mandeville couldn’t move. ” You — who — what –” He fumbled for words.
Maxie held up his hand. “Wait. There’s more.” He seemed to be finding it hard to talk too. “What I got, I had to take. I told her I’d spare her if she went along, but she said she loved you and she’d never do that. I think that’s what brought this on in the first place.” He swallowed and continued. “I ain’t gonna get religion here at the end or anything like that, but I got to square this.”
“Why didn’t you tell the police?”
“The police!” Contempt was plain in the inmate’s voice. “You think lethal injection’s anything to be scared of? You got those cigarettes?”
Joe took them out slowly and tossed them on the table.
Maxie took them and lit one. As he took a deep drag, he began coughing, nearly retching. “I got the big C, you see. Lethal injection’s a mercy compared to waiting around to cough up a lung and die. Besides, I keep seeing her face, begging me for her son’s life.” He raised his eyes to Joe’s face. “And I think you’re gonna want the son of a bitch whose idea this was to suffer more than that.”
Earvin took a folded slip of paper from his pocket. He held the cigarette pack below the table and put the paper in it. “You go to this address. A friend of mine is holding something for you. Something that’ll tell you who wanted this done, and give you something to hold over ‘im.” He slid the cigarettes back across the table to Joe, who took them numbly.
The day after Maxie’s execution, Joe went to the address. The man who lived there, an elderly black man who shook his head when Joe told him what he wanted, went back into the shabby little house and brought out a cell phone.
Joe stared at it blankly.
“Earvin said to keep this charged up and give me the money to keep it runnin’. He had it with him that day and the last call he made on it was to that person who caused you so much grievin’. Earvin said to tell you push the green button twice and you’ll know. You’ll know.” He turned around ungracefully and staggered back through the door.
Mandeville went home with the phone. He put it on the coffee table and stared at it most of the night. Marilyn, is this what you’d want me to do?
When the sun started to rise, he went into her office and brought out the cradle. Slowly, almost by touch, he unpackaged it and brushed his hand over it gently. I’ll never see you. Never hold my son. The morning sun glittered through the tears in his eyes. He fumbled for the phone and pushed the green button twice, holding it to his ear.
“Hello?” The voice that answered the phone was fearful — and he knew it right away. Stunned, he listened as the person repeated, “Hello? Who IS this?”
Through a jaw clenched by rage, he answered as calmly as he could. “Hello, there. Recognize the number, do you?”
At his brother’s terrified gasp, he began to smile without humor. “Take care, Pete. I’ll be seeing you.”